By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández
For the second year in a row, states-parties to the treaty banning cluster munitions have condemned any use of cluster munitions by any actor. In a rebuke of Russia, Ukraine, and the United States, they also expressed “grave concern” about the use of cluster munitions in the Russian war in Ukraine and its humanitarian impact. Days later, the Biden administration announced its second transfer of these weapons to Ukraine.
States-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) held their 11th annual meeting Sept. 11-14 in Geneva. They concluded with the adoption of a final document that highlighted the obligation of the 123 states-parties, including several NATO members, to “never, under any circumstances,” use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain, or transfer cluster munitions.
The document said the meeting “condemned any use of cluster munitions by any actor” and “expressed its grave concern at the significant increase in civilian casualties and the humanitarian impact resulting from the repeated and well documented use of cluster munitions since the second [CCM] review conference.”
“This grave concern applies in particular to the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine,” it added.
Under the convention, states-parties have prohibited the use of cluster munitions, which tend to disperse unexploded bomblets across battlegrounds. The bomblets often do not detonate on impact, posing ongoing risks of injury or death to military personnel and civilians who can encounter them long after hostilities have ceased.
After much internal debate, the Biden administration decided on July 7 to transfer thousands of cluster munitions worth up to $250 million and known as Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICMs) to Ukraine in exchange for assurances about how the weapons would be used. (See ACT, September 2023.)
“By providing Ukraine with DPICM artillery ammunition, we will ensure that the Ukrainian military has sufficient artillery ammunition for many months to come. In this period, the United States, our allies, and partners will continue to ramp up our defense industrial bases to support Ukraine,” Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, told a press conference on July 7.
In announcing another cluster munitions transfer on Sept. 21, the Biden administration argued that the weapons are “helping Ukraine on the battlefield,” but the U.S. Cluster Munitions Coalition said it was “appalled by the…decision to initiate another transfer of these indiscriminate weapons.”
Russia, Ukraine, and the United States are not CCM states-parties, but their activities in the full-scale war that Russia launched on Ukraine in 2022 are being closely monitored by countries that have joined the convention.
In response to the U.S. transfer, and “as president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions that has been signed or ratified by 123 states, we express our concern over this decision,” Abdul-Karim Hashim Mostafa, Iraq’s ambassador to UN international organizations in Geneva, said as the meeting opened on Sept. 11.
In terms of annual casualties from cluster munitions, Ukraine has overtaken Syria, which from 2012 to 2021 experienced the highest total of any country. The Cluster Munitions Monitor, a report published by the Cluster Munition Coalition of civil society groups, totaled 1,172 new cluster munitions casualties worldwide in 2022, the highest annual number of victims since the first report in 2010.
The report said that most of Ukraine’s 916 casualties were due to Russia’s use of cluster munitions. Ukrainian forces used cluster munitions during the first year of the war to a lesser extent. Experts expect the casualty numbers to increase in the years ahead following the Biden administration’s decision to transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine.
Under the treaty, countries commit to clear within 10 years any cluster munitions contaminating the territory they control and pledge to achieve a world free of these weapons. (See ACT, October 2022.) It was announced at the meeting that Bulgaria, Slovakia, and South Africa have completed the destruction of their stockpiles of cluster munitions while Bosnia and Herzegovina completed clearing these weapons from its territory. Peru is now the last state-party with stocks left to destroy.
During the meeting, the Cluster Munition Coalition stressed that “states-parties to the CCM should ensure they do not assist with the transfer or use of the U.S. cluster munitions being sent to Ukraine; for example, they should not allow transit of those munitions through their territory.”
Turkey, which has been accused of transferring cluster munitions to Ukraine, attended the CCM as an observer and told the gathering that “it has never used, produced, imported or transferred cluster munitions since 2005, nor does it intend to do so in the future.” (See ACT, September 2023.)
Ukrainian officials have opted to underscore the perceived military benefits of cluster munitions. Kyiv has requested that Washington transfer unguided M26 rocket projectiles, which can distribute 644 DPICMs into a 200-by-100-meter area and are intended to pierce through armor. The M26 rocket can be launched by the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and the M270 Multiple Rocket Launch System.
“Sending cluster rockets for the HIMARS would greatly increase the number of submunitions delivered by each round. Rather than 70 to 80 per canister, as is the case with the DPICM rounds, the [M26] rockets would carry well over 500 submunitions per canister,” Titus Peachy, a member of the U.S. Cluster Munition Coalition steering committee that helped establish the humanitarian demining program in Laos in 1994, told Arms Control Today.
“Our opposition, of course, is to the indiscriminate nature of the weapon, not the number used. However, the increased number of submunitions only increases the indiscriminate effect. Sadly, it would also make the U.S. disregard for international humanitarian law and the norm set by the CCM even more blatant,” he added.
Civil society activists also have pushed back against the coverage of the cluster munition issue by Russian state-controlled media. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that Russia used cluster munitions in Ukraine prior to the U.S. transfer of DPICMs.
“Russia’s state-controlled media are keen to demonstrate civilian harm from Ukraine’s use of cluster munitions. They show unexploded U.S. submunitions, yet disregard Russia’s own failed submunitions,” Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch wrote on Sept. 6.
The next CCM meeting of states-parties will take place in Geneva in 2024.